One problem facing Muppets Most Wanted is that it follows up 2011’s The Muppets, which saw everyone’s favorite gaggle of vaudevillian weirdos taking part in a giant reunion in order to save both their theater and the rights to their name.
The Great Muppet Caper (which this film cribs more than a little from) was content to put the Muppets in a genre plot rather than try to top the origin story of The Muppet Movie. Most Wanted again tries to pluck the heartstrings, separating Kermit from the rest of the Muppets and putting him in a crisis as he thinks his family has abandoned him (when really they’ve only failed to notice that he’s been replaced by a doppelgänger… which isn’t much better). But it can’t match the emotional tug of seeing the Muppets getting back together. Escalating the stakes with each new sequel doesn’t really work for this franchise. At this rate, the next Muppet film might actually kill someone off (psst, if that does happen, please get rid of Walter).
Freshly together again, the Muppets head on a tour of Europe on the suggestion of manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais). But unbeknownst to them, Badguy is working with Constantine, the world’s greatest thief, who happens to bear a comically striking resemblance to Kermit. Constantine switches out with Kermit, Kermit is mistaken for Constantine and thrown in a Russian gulag, and Constantine and Badguy use the Muppet’s tour as a cover to rob a series of banks and museums.
Stuck in the gulag under the scarily competent warden Nadya (Tina Fey), Kermit decides to make the best of the situation and whip his fellow prisoners into shape for an upcoming variety show.
While the whole movie is reasonably funny and entertaining, Kermit’s subplot is, pound for pound, superior to the main story. The riffs on prison movie tropes all land terrifically, and getting a bunch of hardened criminals to sing and dance (to A Chorus Line!) is perfectly in line with classic Muppet sensibility. Nadya and the mob of inmates (which, in my favorite recurring gag, features Ray Liotta as a constant presence while only speaking once, as well as Danny Trejo playing himself) make for far better company than Constantine or Dominic.
Those villains hog too much of the screentime, almost to the point where they could count as the mains. The other Muppets fade into the background as a result, reduced mainly to the repetitive joke of not recognizing that Constantine isn’t Kermit despite his horribly disguised Russian accent. The only ones who get adequate attention are Miss Piggy and, disappointingly, Walter.
Walter, who is still defined only by his fanboyism, who looks out of place every time he shows up, and whose every line and action would have been better spent on a Muppet people care about. Surprisingly, Sam the Eagle has the most substantial role in the movie after those characters, playing a CIA agent partnered with Ty Burrell‘s Clouseau-esque Inspector Jean Pierre Napoleon to investigate Constantine’s heists. As a tremendous fan of Sam the Eagle, I did not mind that bit in the least.
There’s a better version of Muppets Most Wanted that, rather than dividing the Muppets yet again, instead sent all of them to jail. It’s easy to picture each member sliding into one of the archetypical roles of the prison film. The movie does have a reason for separating Kermit from the rest — it wants to explore what happens to the troupe without him, how they fall apart without his guiding sanity. But that element is background to Constantine and Dominic’s antics, and thus goes to waste.
Most Wanted is a better Muppets film than The Muppets, which overloaded itself with sentimentality. It also has better cameos. The songs, courtesy of a returning Bret MacKenzie, are funny and distinct, though only the opening number seems truly memorable. Overall, it’s a thoroughly decent outing with the beloved cloth creatures.
The Upside: The songs are all fun. Finally gives Sam the Eagle his due. Keeps up a nice clip of good humor.
The Downside: Too much Constantine, Gervais, and Walter. Not enough of too many other Muppets. Attempts at heart feel more obligatory than natural.
On the Side: With this outing, James Bobin becomes only the second director to make more than one Muppet movie — the other is Brian Henson.